HC Deb 11 August 1966 vol 733 cc1883-7
The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Wilson)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, and in accordance with precedent, I would like to make a statement about the setting up of a Royal Commission.

As the House knows, my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor has for some time been considering the arrangements for the trial of civil actions outside London. But, as these arrangements necessarily affect criminal business too, the Government have now come to the conclusion that a far-reaching inquiry into the whole of the present system of assizes and quarter sessions is desirable.

Her Majesty the Queen has been pleased to approve the recommendation that a Royal Commission should be appointed with the following terms of reference: To inquire into the present arrangements for the administration of justice at assizes and at quarter sessions outside Greater London, and to report what reforms should be made for the more convenient economic and efficient disposal of the civil and criminal business at present dealt with by those courts. I hope to announce the names of the chairman and other members of the Royal Commission after the Recess.

Mr. Heath

May I thank the Prime Minister for telling the House about the setting up of yet another Royal Commission?

The Prime Minister

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will feel that this is in accordance with precedent and that it is my duty to inform the House. As for the sting in the tail of his supplementary question, I hope that he will realise that for a long time there has been a widespread demand in the legal profession, and even more widely, for a thorough inquiry into the question of assize courts, some of the rules of which have not changed since the 14th century. Since the right hon. Gentleman failed to modernise in this respect, I hope that he will not begrudge our doing so.

Mr. English

Will the terms of reference of the Commission be wide enough for it to be able to consider restrictive practices in the legal profession?

The Prime Minister

It is for the Royal Commission to construe its own terms of reference. I think that I can say with confidence that they are not drafted in a form to invite such a construction. I would not construe them in that way.

Mr. Doughty

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that during the period of the last Government the Streatfeild Committee was set up and made recommendations, and that changes were made as a result. As for the composition of this Commission, will the Prime Minister see that it is staffed by people with experience of the work of assize and quarter sessions courts, and not by those with only outside experience?

The Prime Minister

In addition to the Streatfeild Committee, which reported in 1961, inquiries were made in 1867, 1908, 1913 and by the Peel Commission of 1936. It is now time that something was done. The Streatfeild Committee was not concerned with the fundamental alteration of the assize system—under which 61 assize towns have to be visited by judges at least twice a year. Some are very small and away from the main centres of population. It is about time this was dealt with and it would be more satisfactory for those authorities if it were done by an independent Royal Commission.

Mr. John Lee

I thank my right hon. Friend for this announcement, which will be widely welcomed. I realise that the Royal Commission must govern its own procedure, but does my right hon. Friend have any idea how long it will be before we get a report, in view of the urgent nature of the reforms which are to be recommended?

The Prime Minister

I cannot forecast how long it will take. The Royal Commission has a clearly defined task. One has to listen to local opinion on this matter, especially as some areas or towns will lose their assizes. Most people with experience of this will agree that it is profoundly unsatisfactory, very uneconomic and costly to the taxpayer and the ratepayer to run the system on the present basis.

Mr. Carlisle

Now that the Prime Minister has agreed that he was wrong in his previous answer when he said that no such inquiries had been made during the lifetime of the previous Government when, in fact, the Streatfeild Committee was set up to inquire into the urgent dispatch of criminal cases, will he assure the House that one recommendation of the Streatfeild Committee, namely, that there should be no further Crown courts, will not bind the Royal Commission in any way?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Member now admits that the Streatfeild Committee did not deal to anything like the extent that the Royal Commission will deal with this problem, since it had very limited terms of reference. Now he does not feel that the Streatfeild Report, on the very important question of the extension of the Crown courts, was satisfactory. It will not bind the Royal Commission or any action taken by it. What he has said makes it more important to have this Royal Commission.

Mr. Archer

Can the Prime Minister assure the House that the Royal Commission will not consist entirely of members of the legal profession, but that some provision will be made for representing the consumer?

The Prime Minister

The Commission will certainly inquire into civil as well as criminal cases. There must be an adequate representation of the public interest in this matter, as well as the professionals engaged on this work. This will not just be an inquiry by the lawyers into the legal profession. I should think that it was not impossible for the chairman to be a non-lawyer.

Sir Knox Cunningham

Does the Prime Minister expect or hope that the Royal Commission will report in the lifetime of this Parliament?

The Prime Minister

Yes, but I should inform the hon. and learned Gentleman that it will not be inquiring into Northern Ireland.

Mr. Molloy

Will the Prime Minister acknowledge that despite the frivolous attitude of the Leader of the Opposition—which, I hope, will be noted in the country—in addition to the economic aspect and the expenses aspect which have been mentioned, there is also the question of achieving justice? Will he see that the terms of reference which are to be considered will include this very important aspect and also make it clear that this is to be a genuine effort to put things straight, after the "phoney" efforts that we had from right hon. Members opposite when in power?

The Prime Minister

I can assure my hon. Friend that I do not consider the Leader of the Opposition to be frivolous, although it is nice to see him smile once in a while.

As for the terms of reference, in my original statement I have already set out the terms which will make possible the very thorough inquiry on which my hon. Friend is so determined.

Mr. Ronald Bell

Will the Prime Minister refer the whole of Government policy to one of these bodies, which take minutes and waste years?

The Prime Minister

The Government could, of course, have taken their own decisions in this matter of assize courts—there is a body of information on the subject—but I should have thought that the whole House, even in a holiday mood, would feel that, since so many local interests are involved, and since we have to ensure that justice is available quickly and, as far as possible, economically and efficiently in different parts of the country, it is better to have the matter impartially surveyed rather than done by the Government.